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Kargil Diaries...A Red Letter Day


The article by an IAF officer about his refusal to fly Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru reminds me of the time I politely refused to fly Mr George Fernandes, the then Defence Minister, but finally ended up taking him.

In Jul 1999, Mr Fernandes, the Defence Minister had come visiting forward troops during the Kargil conflagration, and the whole top brass was also present at the site in the sub sector. Our Army units had huge successes the preceding couple of days and the enemy was being systematically routed by a combination of fierce Artillery barrages and brazen infantry assaults. The Defence Minister had flown in via Srinagar on an IAF MI 17 and wanted to address the forward troops before meeting the press at Kargil.

Apropos, quite a few whirly birds carrying the heirarchy to the intended spot of the Josh talk by the Defence Minister had congregated to this clearing in the mountainside.

As we sat listening to the Defence Minister pepping up the troops,a message trickled down on a piece of paper from our Corps Cdr, to my GOC who passed it on to me: The Defence Minister wanted to be flown over the positions that had been taken by our troops and witness the terrain firsthand. My GOC told us to undertake the task.

I passed the slip on to my copilot and he looked at me in disbelief.

While Mr Fernandes was inspiring fire to the assembled troops, I hastily scribbled a note back to my GOC, expressing my misgivings as below:

Not recommended, Sir.


1. Single engine aircraft (the Cheetah helicopter is a macchhar and depends on only one, though supremely reliable Artouste French origin engine. The Defence Minister rarely sat in single engine aircraft)

2. No VIP checks had been carried out on our helicopter (these are mandated by regulations and an extensive series of tests is supposed to be done, including preservation of fuel samples etc. Our Cheetah had been flogged extensively, and we were pushing the envelope daily for the past few weeks since hostilities had begun).

3. Both pilots not cleared to fly VIPs and VVIPs. (The Defence Minister was classified as a VIP as per regulations and was required to be flown by a pilots having a category/ instrument rating of 'B Green'. I was a 'C Green' pilot and my copilot Capt IS Ghuman was 'C White'.)

4. Not enough oxygen on board for the passenger. (We had planned on a simple to and fro sortie from our detachment base in Kargil to this forward helipad and back, and were short of oxygen for this long trip desired by the VIP).

5. Enemy AD and small arms fire activity over the intended area of the sortie (Just a few days back the second chopper of our detachment at Kargil had landed back with a bullet through one of the cyclic actuating rods under the main rotor)

I passed this slip of paper to the GOC who glanced at me and passed it up the heirarchy.

As the speech by the Defence Minister ended and 'jaikaaras' had been lustily bellowed, the Corps Cdr walked up to me with my slip, looked me in the eye and said, " Son all this notwithstanding, are you confident you can take him?"

All of 27 years old, three stars on my young shoulders, having flown and landed in literally the highest and worst terrain for helicopters in the world, not only was I just confident, to my mind I was immortal.

We prepared our chopper, and within some time were airborne with the Defence Minister and the Corps Cdr on board.

It was almost a fifty minute sortie, and all details are embellished in my mind indelibly. The Defence Minister wanted to go over each position we had overrun in the preceding days.

Artillery guns were still booming from each and every ledge that the guns had squeezed onto. We hovered over recently dug graves of the Nothern Light Infantry troops killed in battle, and which our boys had covered with green cloth; we circled ruins of enemy sangars totally decimated by our fire assaults. Over the only passenger headset, Mr Fernandes was in constant conversation with me, asking intelligent questions and noting things down in a small pad. When we hovered over a feature where infantry unit had fought valiantly, he perked up and said, "Yes I know, this is where Major Sarvanan died a hero". I was amazed at the level of knowledge the Defence Minister had: he knew an officer of one of the Infantry battalions who was killed in action, by name.

Afternoon turbulence was setting in and as we entered narrow side valleys, our chopper was soon bobbing like a cork on water.

I pointed out Shangruti feature to the Defence Minister in the distance and told him the enemy had Stinger air to air missiles deployed there. Our memories of a recently downed MI 17 helicopter (Pundir and Muhilan) of the IAF fresh in our minds. Mr Fernandes grimly nodded.

Finally he said let's go back to Kargil.

As we crossed the Indus river, edged the helicopter over Hambotingla pass and Kargil helipad emerged in sight below, the Defence Minister was still looking at the Grad multi barrel rocket launchers deployed on the pass, and the numerous FH 77B Bofors 155mm guns sticking up their barrels in high angle in various clusters below us, and was making copious notes.

After we landed at Kargil helipad, we were swarmed by journalists and reporters clicking pictures.

We had no mobile phones in 1999, so I got through to my CO (who was in Leh) through the army telephone, and narrated the event.

My stoic CO, the intrepid aviator, was silent at the end of my report.

I was expecting some chastisement at the flouting of numerous regulations, but the taciturn old man just had a couple of lines to say:

"Okay...log it in your log book. Not everyday that a 'C' Green flies the Defence Minister."

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